Polls show Republicans in Congress are making used car salesmen look good. Gallup reports a measly 11 percent of Americans approve of the job Republicans are doing. There's a reason for that. Here's an example:
Speaking recently on the Senate floor about the standoff in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a short statement. Most of it expressed his frustration that the president wouldn't negotiate with Republicans. ("Let's sit down. Let's talk this out.") One sentence late in the statement mentions "common-sense reforms" to get the national debt under control; another calls for "solutions" instead of going into default. None of those solutions or reforms were spelled out.
A day earlier, House Speaker John Boehner spoke at a Capitol Hill press conference with Republican leaders. Most of the time, he criticized Democrats for not negotiating as well, and not being interested in meeting Republicans "halfway." Only one sentence mentioned being open to a temporary increase in the debt ceiling, reopening the government, "going to conference on the budget," and dealing with America's pressing problems. He ended by repeating his plea for negotiations with the White House.
Neither leader mentioned the economy or jobs. Neither mentioned our whopping $17 trillion national debt. Neither statement did a good job of explaining to Americans the Republican position on the government shutdown or on the debt limit. Neither statement mentioned that a stunning three out of four Americans now believe our country is on the wrong track. Neither statement mentioned what the GOP is going to do about it. Both McConnell and Boehner articulated a deep sense of frustration, but then just walked away from the microphone without making the Republican case. What a waste.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have been going to town, calling Republicans "anarchists," "arsonists," "fanatics" and extremists holding the government "hostage" while "demanding ransom." Dan Pfeiffer, President Obama's top media adviser, recently said, "What we're not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest."
With rhetoric like that, it's no wonder polls show most Americans are blaming Republicans for the mess. "Look, I guess we can get lower in the polls. We're down to blood relatives and paid staffers now," Sen. John McCain joked on CBS' "Face the Nation." "But we've got to turn this around."
Republicans need to up their game when they step in front of the microphones. Here are a few suggestions for "turning this around":
Eliminate Beltway-speak. Let House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi talk about a "clean CR." A "clean CR" is Washington code for a short-term spending bill that has no strings attached. Passing one would allow more government spending without any conditions at all, something most Americans wouldn't want. Republicans should call it what it is: free money. Beltway-speak is confusing to people; and when they're confused, they stop listening.
Stay away from complaints about the process. Stop reminding people that no one is talking to each other; it just makes voters angrier – especially after members of Congress took a five-week recess this summer rather than working on averting this crisis.
Get on the high road. Every time the president accuses Republicans of "holding a gun to my head" during the government shutdown – which has been quite often – they should remind him of his remarks after the Tucson shooting. In the wake of that tragedy, he called for more civil public discourse that doesn't question other Americans' motives. Republicans shouldn't be using incendiary rhetoric themselves, and they should call on the left to get out of the gutter.
Be specific about what the GOP stands for. For example, make the case for tax reform: Lower income tax rates help businesses hire more workers, invest more capital and expand into new markets. More investment means more economic growth and more entrepreneurship. Most of all, it means more jobs. Every Republican in front of a microphone should make the case for tax reform.
Similarly, Republicans should talk specifics about enacting gradual structural reforms to entitlements in order to preserve benefits for the next generation. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has proposed means-testing Medicare premiums, making Medigap plans more cost-efficient, combining Medicare Part A and B to ease confusion, and asking federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement. I'd add one more: Raise the retirement age. Voters know the problem and want solutions, not name-calling.
Focus on policies that can attract more bipartisan support. House Republicans have proposed a long-term package to reduce spending and reform out-of-control entitlements. They need to enact it now to get the economy moving and unemployment back down. That's why they're focused on the debt limit – it's a proven way to get a bipartisan agreement. Obama says he's willing to engage with Congress on a long-term budget agreement. Congress should take him at his word and bring the Republican plan up for a vote, now, before interest rates start rising.
As Ryan said recently, "This is not a Republican versus Democrat thing. This is a math thing." As Republicans get ready for the next round – more sequester cuts will hit in January, and the debt limit will be reached in February – they'd be wise to keep the focus on the math. They need more than paid staff and blood relatives supporting them.
- Read Kelly Riddell: The Government Shutdown Overshadowed the Disastrous Obamacare Rollout
- Read Jamie Stiehm: How the Government Shutdown Was Like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
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